Travel + Leisure is exploring America one three-day weekend at a time. Here’s what to do on a short trip to our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.

Three Day Weekend in Washington, D.C.
Credit: Getty Images/Glowimages RF

Historical sites and Smithsonian museums were staples during those eighth grade school trips to the capital city. But in recent years, Washington, D.C., has retained its patriotism while also turning itself into a food and arts destination — drawing people to its longtime favorites (Ben’s Chili Bowl) and shiny new eateries. The dichotomy represents the city’s growing gentrification (the capital was named one of the fastest gentrifying cities by a Governing study in 2015), one neighborhood at a time.

Day One

If you’re close enough to arrive by train (or fly to Baltimore-Washington International airport, just two Amtrak stops away from the train station), take a moment to appreciate the perfectly framed view of the Capitol building through the arches as you exit Union Station. Otherwise, Reagan International Airport is a quick Uber ($16 to $20) or Metrorail ride to the city center.

Settle into a centrally located hotel, like the cozy Capitol Hill Hotel (all-suite rooms on a quiet street behind the Capitol, with free bike rentals and wine hour), business-friendly (but still chic) Hilton Washington, where the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner is held, or the W Hotel (marvel at the sprawling views from the rooftop bar literally right next door to the White House).

Then, grab a picnic blanket and head to the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden (there is the outdoor Jazz in the Garden from 5 to 8:30 p.m. on summer Fridays). Takeaway food is available at the food trucks on the surrounding streets, as well as the Pavilion Garden on the premises — which also offers alcoholic beverages.

If the al fresco dinner and drinks doesn’t fill you up, go for round two at the original location of D.C.’s iconic late-night eat, Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street, or the newer shop on H Street. Follow in Barack Obama's footsteps with a Ben’s Original Chili Half-Smoke for $5.95.

Day Two

Start your morning early with a leisurely jog or bike ride (Capital Bikeshare docks are everywhere) circling the Tidal Basin. The loop, slightly more than 2 miles around, will take you by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, dedicated in 1943, and the more recent Martin Luther King Memorial, dedicated in 2011. Tucked in between is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which may not have the marquee name of its neighbors, but is equally impactful and spread over 7.5 acres.

Zip over to Barracks Row and stroll the shops along 8th Street SE and warm up your appetite with a salted dulce de leche or seasonal-flavored doughnut at District Doughnut. Then wander the half mile over to Eastern Market to browse the weekend vendor’s stands and indulge in a meal at The Market Lunch (the fried green tomatoes are a must).

After lunch, museum hop down the Mall (remember, the Smithsonian Museums are all free!). Hidden gems include Leo Villareal’s Multiverse light tunnel between the east and west buildings of the National Gallery of Art and the live butterfly pavilion (special exhibition rate of $7.50) at the National Museum of Natural History.

If you have the time, put your name in for the inevitably long wait for one of D.C.’s most buzzed-about eateries, Rose’s Luxury. Or dine at another one of the Capital’s popular restaurants: Rose’s Luxury chef Aaron Silverman’s Pineapple and Pearls (this one does take reservations!), the Mediterranean-themed Tail Up Goat in Adams Morgan, or the Dabney in Shaw, in a charming 1900s rowhouse.

For a nightcap, blend in with the locals at the Dacha beer garden.

Day Three

Ease into the day by browsing books at Dupont Circle’s Kramerbooks (an Obama family favorite) and enjoy coffee and a bite at the in-store cafe, Afterwords. Then wander through the Sunday morning farmers’ market across the way.

Georgetown isn’t easily accessible by Metro, so either hop in a Uber or enjoy the mile-and-a-half walk over to explore the stores along M street before stopping at Italian eatery Via Umbria for their $40 bottomless bellini brunch.

Walk off the meal at the Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens, hidden away in northwest D.C.’s hills. Conceived in the 1950s, the grounds includes a rose garden, French parterre, pet cemetery, Japanese-style garden, greenhouse, and mansion — and feels a world apart from the national monuments just miles away.

Continue the fancy theme with afternoon tea at the St. Regis, the Willard Hotel, or the Mandarin Oriental’s Empress Lounge — or opt for a more low-key version at one of three locations of Teaism.

Before leaving town, get the ultimate international smorgasbord at Compass Rose, which specializes in street food from around the world. That means one-stop shopping for Cuban sandwiches, Greek spanakopita, Korean bibim guksu, and Spanish street potatoes, making D.C. the true global city it is today.

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